A Rebuttal to “We Don’t Need More Female Superheroes”

Every now and then, I encounter something written (usually online) that is so blatantly idiotic and offensive that, upon brief consideration of it as a topic for The Heretic Loremaster, I shrug my shoulders and move on because, given the people who read here, it would be preaching to the choir and not likely to generate much discussion beyond high-fiving as we nod emphatically in agreement with each other. But, this time, I can’t resist. For one, this guy is so blatantly idiotic and offensive that I can’t let him squeak by without giving an answer. For another, it’s been a busy week at school, I’m too tired to take on someone worth the argument, and I feel like cutting my teeth a little, so here goes.

Josh Tyler has written a post called We Don’t Need More Female Superheroes. (Thanks to Sinneahtes for first spotting it and to Juno Magic for the heads up!) This post was in response to a post by Thera Pitts that deconstructed the female characters in recent superhero movies, coming to the conclusion that women tend to be “characterized” toward the negative extreme of whatever role they occupy. “Did you ever stop to think that it isn’t just the actresses who sully your favorite movies but the comic book movie industry’s lazy attitude towards women characters in general?” asks Pitts. “The actress is only as good as her material, and the material is seriously lacking.” She notes that women overwhelmingly tend to be characterized as helpless victims in need of rescue, “moody emo-bitch[es],” or as the fateful She Who Ruins All by tempting, betraying, or distracting the hero unto his ultimate doom.

This is an insightful observation, and it echoes a broader trend across centuries of legend and literature. No matter what a female character’s role, she is shoved to the most negative extremes of that role. If she is strong and autonomous, then she becomes a bitch, a ball-breaker, a man-hater. If she is kind and compassionate, then she becomes weak; she is overwhelmingly the victim incapable of helping herself; she is the one who trips on a flat stretch of land and can’t do more than squeal and kick futilely as she is raped/murdered/abducted by her stronger male attacker. And then there’s the Eve effect: Women who, through their failings, bring about the destruction of the male hero, the kingdom, the world. From the rise of pre-Christian patriarchy, these one-dimensional negative archetypes have been women’s lot in literary life (for tempting Adam to the apple, of course). These archetypes are old enough to put the Old Testament on the New Releases shelf, and even as literary styles changed drastically over the centuries, this one thing did not. Women, when not being marginalized or ignored entirely, were maligned in literature, a trend that has extended to film as well.

Of course, when women done went and got uppity and started to complain about their shallow, scathing treatment in literature, men got all pie-eyed and innocent-like because it was only fair! It was only reality! It’s just the way that women were/are! They (the wise male authors) were being true to their subjects! And, anyway, what woman wants to read that ol’ fusty Tennyson when Danielle Steele has a new novel on the bestsellers list?

This is where Tyler’s post comes in. Rather than tackle Pitts’ argument (which is one of characterization and fair treatment in fiction to, oh, more than half of the human race), he attempts to nullify it altogether by … well, I don’t think I can paraphrase it well enough to capture the full wow-factor of Tyler’s words, so I’ll let him dig his own grave:

Men and women simply have different interests. Men are interested in action movies with heroes blowing things up and saving the girl. Men are interested in imagining themselves as ass-kicking heroes. Women are interested in movies about relationships and romance and love. Women are interested in imagining themselves finding the right guy and dancing till dawn. Little boys play with guns, little girls play with dolls. Neither version of play is superior to the other, it’s just different. Nobody is out there trying to force men to get interested in movies about romantic weekends in Paris, so why are we so dead set on forcing women to get interested in movies about beating people up? There’s something unintentionally sexist about it, it’s as if we’re saying women’s interests are somehow inherently inferior, and to be validated they must instead find ways to be more like men.

In the comments on this post, there is much hand-raising from women who did not spend their childhoods wiping the plastic asses of doll-babies but rather careened around the backyard on fantastic quests, using exhausted wrapping-paper rolls for swords and wearing bathrobes for ceremonial robes and converting a quarter-acre swatch of trees into a dark, deep, ominous forest as full of potential for danger and adventure as it was for conquest and reward. Okay … that was my sister and me. But I don’t think I need to go thrusting my hand into the air for playing Hero more than House, and I don’t think I need to poll the women reading here to know that far more of you got together with girlfriends, sisters, and cousins to go battling the hordes of dark minions in your backyard than to play princess tea party in order to prove or validate women’s interest in subjects beyond boy-meets-girl love stories culminating in domestic bliss.

Nor do I need to ask how many women here got far more excited this summer over the release of Prince Caspian or The Dark Knight than Sex in the City or Mamma Mia!.

Of course, this does not make stereotypically “women’s movies” or “women’s interests” inferior. In that sense, I agree with Tyler. But … I think his self-righteous defense of the fairer sex is a straw man bigger than the one in which Nicholas Cage was torched by a bunch of misbehavin’ womenfolk back in 2006. Hollywood doesn’t have a problem making the sorts of movies that Tyler believes serves the “female interest.” In any given week, there is a romantic comedy or somesuch in theatres that is aimed at women. Nor do women have problems going to these movies, if that’s their thing. Witness Bride Wars‘ quick ascendency to the #2 spot in U.S. box-office sales this weekend. Witness the fact that men being “dragged” to “chick flicks” by their excited wives and girlfriends is perennial fodder on primetime sitcoms. Tyler makes it out like Sex in the City was a come-from-behind indy flick and Hollywood reject, or as though there are lines of people pegging tomatoes at women as they walk into Nights in Rodanthe. Not hardly. In our family, the lists of new movie releases are, weekly, the source of first excitement, then scrutiny, then inevitable disappointment because neither my husband nor I are interested in this sort of movie, and they often seem to crowd out the independent and limited-release films that rarely make it as far as our rural corner of the world. Trust me, there is never a dearth of chick flicks, which means that there is no dearth of women lining up to see them. If it doesn’t sell, Hollywood doesn’t keep making it. (Which–as in the constant peltering of Friedberg & Seltzer spoof flicks–can often act as a sorry commentary on the state of our species.)

Nice try, Tyler. Pardon me if I’m writing this blog post instead of getting signs painted to march on the Mall this weekend in recognition of women’s unalienable right to see chick flicks or in defense of the women “forced” to see “movies about beating people up,” an issue that surely deserves its place right alongside my outrage at sex slavery. This feminist finds it far more frightening that, in the year 2009, anyone seriously makes the argument that one’s interests even tend to divide neatly along the same lines as the possession or lack of a Y-chromosome.

This kind of thinking–not arguing for more female superheroes in movies–is what is sexist and offensive.

It has nothing to do with validating women’s interests by how closely they fall to the interests of men. It has everything to do with perpetuating stereotypes that have, for centuries, been used to dismiss and subjugate women as inferiors to men. In the comments to Tyler’s post, a few people expressed outrage at his generalization about how girls play with dolls. He retorted by asking, where was the outrage for the little boys pigeonholed into violent gun play? And I’ll be the first to speak out against stereotypes, whether against males or females. But the stereotyping of women is more dangerous. It is more offensive. Why? Because the stereotyping of men and the interests of men is not used to excuse the subjection of men to women’s benefit.

(In fact, I must speak out against offensiveness in this post that goes beyond that which affects me as a woman:

Of course some women actually are interested in superheroes, just as there are guys out there who are really into touchy-feely musicals. Most of them are British, but even here in America you’ll occasionally run into a guy with a twisted love of Mamma Mia!.

As an American, I despise when my culture and language is thought automatically inferior because of stereotypes like the ones that Tyler is embracing here. For the love of all things heretical, stop with the chest-thumping, my-balls-swing-harder-than-yours nasty rhetoric implying that British/European men are less “manly” than we red-blooded, steak-eatin’, pickup-truck-drivin’ ‘Mericans because we like seeing things blow up more. It is “twisted” to enjoy a musical more than an action movie if you are a man. Veiled homophobia much?)

Inherent in Tyler’s argument is the assumption that women are predetermined to be softer, gentler, and more nurturing. They are incapable of strength, assertiveness, or competitiveness. This has been used to keep women illiterate, ignorant, without the vote, without rights, under the thumbs of their fathers, under the thumbs of their husbands, stuck in the home, barefoot and pregnant, married against their wills, out of schools, out of jobs … need I go on? Do you see, Mr. Tyler, why your opinions on female superheroes are so offensive? Why recognize the spectacular range of human interests–i.e., not confined to or deemed acceptable for one gender or another–when we can pigeonhole people tidily into interests based on what is most acceptable to the dominant patriarchal culture?

Ironically, Tyler’s argument ties back into the root cause of the phenomenon that Pitts’ observed in her post. Women have been maligned and misunderstood in literature–which now extends to that which is written for the screen–for a very, very long time now using arguments just like those that Tyler uses to dismiss a woman’s demand for better-written female characters. Women deserve no better than to be sluts, bitches, poisoners, traitors, witches, victims, and agents of downfall and destruction because we all know–as Tyler points out to us–that this is simply the way that women are. It is against our own best interests when we dare to argue otherwise. Thank you, Mr. Tyler, for the enlightenment.


7 Responses to “A Rebuttal to “We Don’t Need More Female Superheroes””

  1. Niki says:

    careened around the backyard on fantastic quests, using exhausted wrapping-paper rolls for swords and wearing bathrobes

    My brother and I did the same thing! (Well, we played Star Wars and our wrapping paper rolls were light sabers, but anyway…)

    Also, I especially love the whole “women don’t want this stuff–look, guys play with guns and girls play with dolls! We’re *just different!*” thing because wasn’t there a study done that showed that if an adult was given a toy gun and a doll and a baby to play with, the adult would use the toy gun if it’s a girl baby dressed like a boy and the doll if it’s a boy baby dressed like a girl? I’ll have to look it up. (I distinctly remember seeing the video of an old guy trying to give a baby a realistic looking gun and wondering, “WTF do people give fake guns to *babies* for, anyway?!” so I’m sure it’s real.)

    So I totally see why “they’re just different” is a great reason why there shouldn’t be super hero movies made with a female audience in mind. 😛

    And as I said to someone else, it always cracks me up when something is made with white men in mind as an audience, then women and/or people of color (or another minority) speak up as saying they want something like that but more geared toward their tastes, and people point at the movie and say, “But look, mostly white men (and let’s ignore everyone else in the audience)! You don’t even like this stuff, so what’s the point?!”

    (And cripes, the sentence “Make them for men” creeped me out, for some reason. That and the use of the phrase “slutting it up.”)

    *high fives*

  2. Niki says:

    (Er, kind of off-topic but: I hit the “submit comment” button a bit too soon and had forgotten before posting that while I wasn’t thinking of “old guy” as a way of putting down the guy in the video, it could easily come across as insulting given the context. My apologies.)

  3. I actually bookmarked the article in question to read it at a later time, but now having read your rant about it, I probably won’t do so. It might make me run around in circles, screaming, and I don’t want to disturb the neighbours too much, after all. ;P

    Especially that quote made me want to get my head better acquainted to my writing desk:

    Women are interested in movies about relationships and romance and love.

    Eh, no. I’m interested in well written quality movies with nicely developed characters and a plot to hold my interest. If those happen to be about about relationships and romance and love it’s fine with me. If they are an escapist fantasy or historic thriller (why does no one make movies about the War of Roses?) or maybe even a 70s James Bond, even better.

    Add to that, that as a former movie student, I can appreciate technically well done movies, even if I don’t like the genre or the story or whatever. As a former student of art history, the same goes for movies with an innovative set design. Seriously, for me movies go far beyond “me likes” or “me likes not”. There are those that I watch for the sheer pleasures of it, and others that I like for being artsy and intellectual. The one movie that combines those two aspects perfectly is IMHO Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract, and that one certainly isn’t the sort of simpering chick flick the author expects me to like.

    Okay, was a bit on the OT-side now, but I appear to have talked myself into a rage… I hate it when people don’t believe me able to think about movies on an intellectual level…

    Also, all those stereotypes make me gnash my teeth and rend my hair… I mean I enjoyed Sex and the City, I love high heeled shoes and shopping and going out for a drink, but there are – less womanly – things I enjoy just as much or even more. For example, I was always more interested in motorbikes than dolls (and growing up in the country, there were far more interesting things to do than playing with girly things anyway!); even today I’d prefer a Ducati Monster to a Birkin bag, and my maternal feelings only extend as far as to my kitties.

    Now, do I go to read that “thing” for the sheer masochism of it, or do I rather leave it and dumb my bookmark in the trash, where it belongs?

    Thanks Dawn, as always. :)

  4. Dawn says:

    Niki: I don’t know that particular study, but it certainly makes sense based on what I know of the social explanations for the differences between males and females. I thought of a really weird analogy last night: Imagine I owned a restaurant and served two items: carrots and avocados. You come to my restaurant, and I give you a table and sit a plate of carrots in front of you. “I’d prefer the avocados,” you say. “No!” I scold. “The avocados are for people named Bill, Maurice, and Janet! People named Niki, Steve, and Maria have carrots.”

    When I walk away, you reach for Bill’s avocados at the next table. Bill, Maurice, and Janet all tease you because–everyone knows!–carrots are for Nikis, not avocados. And when I come back in the room, I smack your hand and sit another plate of carrots in front of you.

    Eventually, you learn to eat carrots.

    Some years later, I point to the lack of women named Niki ordering guacamole in my restaurant. “See! It proves it! Women named Niki just don’t like avocados. It’s just the way they are. There’s nothing wrong with that! It’s hard-wired! You show a woman named Niki a menu, and I can almost guarantee she’ll order carrots!

    “(Now, of those Maurices who have a twisted love for carrots … we won’t discuss that!)”

    I think it’s interesting the number of young women becoming interested in superheroes, fantasy, manga, comic books, science fiction: those typically male pursuits. We are more conscious of stereotypes these days; I’m sure that you and I were handed dolls by default far less often than our mothers were, for example. And look! Women in our age group and younger tend to have broader interests!

    I saw your comment on your original post about why women or people of color wouldn’t want to see movies that constantly malign them. I think it’s an excellent point! :) To extend my bizarre food analogy just a bit further, if you constantly find hair in the guacamole that you order at my restaurant, chances are you’ll eventually stop ordering it. That doesn’t mean that you dislike avocados when they’re not disgusting and offensive.

    (And no worries about the “old guy” … I didn’t take it that way at all! :) )

    Also, I’m with you: Who the hell would give a baby a gun to play with??

    UH: Yes! That is a truly novel concept that women as well as men might care less about capes and high-heeled shoes than they do fully realized characters! 😉 As I remarked in a recent conversation here about whether writers should aim their characters at being “politically correct,” I said no: but characters must serve the story, and sticking a character–male or female–into a stereotypical role because that’s the easiest choice is simply bad writing.

    I don’t tend to see “chick flicks.” There are a few that I’ve seen over the years for one reason or another that I end up liking. Incidentally, my husband ends up liking them too, usually. But it’s because the story and the characters are realistic and thoughtful, not cardboard stand-ins for the worst stereotypes.

    *high fives on the OT rant* Yes, anytime I am assumed to be incapable of something requiring thought or knowledge, I tend to fly into a teeth-gnashing rage. 😉 I do not have nearly your education on the subject, but I am a huge movie fan, and I love analyzing what works and what doesn’t. There is someone *ahem* who shall go unnamed who likes to brush off my opinions while thumping his chest and asserting his own. *rage*

    Tyler’s original article is really short. And the comments will make you feel a bit avenged, even if it doesn’t take away the fact that this is 2009 and someone really wrote this and expected to be taken seriously. But Pitts’ article is definitely worth the read. I’m researching right now how women are using the fantasy genre to fix myths that have portrayed them negatively for centuries, and I was amazed at how well Pitts’ observations coordinated with my own and my research on fantasy literature. (Yes, I am looking at you too, JRRT! 😉 )

    And you’re welcome! :)

  5. Oshun says:

    careened around the backyard on fantastic quests, using exhausted wrapping-paper rolls for swords and wearing bathrobes

    Yes! Sounds completely familiar. I had two sisters near my own age and that was what we did. We played dolls, but not wiping baby butts. We did dramatic reenactments of similar quest or military scenes, using them as puppets, when the weather was too bad to go outside and build forts and hunt dragons. We were also girlie-girls, who liked to dress up, flirt, chase little boys and read love stories. We had it all.

  6. Dawn says:

    It really amazes me how many women had similar experiences growing up. Actually, I don’t think I know one woman who did only “girlie” things growing up. Kind of discredits the stereotypes, huh? 😉

    I like the girlie tween novels of the day, certainly: Babysitter’s Club, Saddle Club, Sleepover Friends, Sweet Valley High, and everything by Judy Blume. But I also liked gory horror stories, so go figure!

  7. Kondoru says:

    Reminds me of an argument I had on an anime forum (anime fans seem to be female, those that arent girly boys)

    That of `What is a girl doing in an elite strike force anyway?`

    I said she was a NINJA, a perfectly acceptable job for the unliberated Japanese female (along with Diving girl, Shamaness, Founder of martial art and Businesswoman, to name a few traditional jobs)


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